Steve McQueen’s Once Upon a Time
Among the gondola filled canals of Venice’s Arsenale neighbourhood stands but one of hundreds of exhibition spaces that make up this year’s 2013 Venice Biennale. Found within the Arsenale pavilion, Once Upon a Time (2002) is a slide projection piece by artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen. The images McQueen projects on screen are sourced from the two Voyager Golden Records that adorn both Voyager satellites originally launched in 1977, still hurtling through space. These images, combined with the sounds of the world (international music, greetings from around the world in a number of languages, rain falling, lips kissing, etc.) were meant to communicate the entirety of our civilization to an intelligent extraterrestrial race. In Once Upon a Time however, McQueen opts out of the original audio recordings that NASA included on the spacecrafts, replacing it with “glossolalia”, better known as speaking in tongues.
The resulting experience confronts viewers of the Arsenale space with a juxtaposition between what they see and what they hear. The images chosen by Carl Sagan and his NASA appointed committee continue to communicate a rational, ordered human society as they intended in the 1970’s. They present our civilization using images seemingly drawn out of biology and chemistry textbooks, complete with mathematical notation, scales and diagrams. Other images carry more emotional and empathetic implications such as an image of a farmer quietly enjoying the fruits of his labour in the afternoon sun. By contrasting these images with the non-sensical language that is glossolalia, McQueen’s critique of humanity becomes evident.
Despite the best efforts of Sagan and contemporaries, according to McQueen humans are not as they appear on the Golden Record. McQueen outlines our preference to see the world we create and inhabit through rose-tinted glasses, preferring to depict people as compassionate, caring beings who undergo growth and learn from our mistakes, and inevitably change for the best. But as many have pointed out, there remains an obvious void in the collection of images. In fact some of the more definitive images of our species such as war, hate, and disease remain without representation. By eliminating the music of Beethoven from the score, and replacing it with a coarse mix of sounds from the human mouth, McQueen shows mankind as the species of primates we are.
Furthermore, the implication of the glossolalia track highlights the problems presented to any alien race that might happen across either Voyager satellite and its shiny record. Much like the gallery-goers I observed, and myself included, extraterrestrial life would find difficulties understanding the audio that they heard, if they indeed could hear at all. Even though I myself occupy the world that these sounds come from, I too remain in the dark. The images remain just as elusive in meaning. Stripped from their context and without the wealth of experience each human being has amassed throughout their life that they require to decode these images, McQueen describes the arbitrary nature of our languages and systems of representation. Perhaps more importantly, he implicates the arbitrary nature of our existence.
If you would like to view the original images and sounds encoded on the Voyager Golden Records, you can explore their website at: http://goldenrecord.org